Helge Hiram

Helge Hiram has 4 articles published.

An encounter with a Syrian refugee in Athens

This is the fifth part of the series “Athens: the crisis within the crisis” (click here).

In a corner of the Eleonas refugee camp, among the new barracks inhabited by newly arrived refugees, I met a young man from Syria. He shared his personal experience with the human consequences of geopolitics.

A refugee family

Ibrahim came towards me with his little cousin in a trolley. They were curious about me. Ibrahim was a former student who had to flee from his village in northern Syria. Ibrahim had stayed in Pireus Port for a long time before going to the Macedonian border, then staying for a long time by the border fence. I got the impression that he fled from Jihadists. Ibrahim and the family wish to reach Germany. The little girl misses her father, who left Syria three months earlier, and who is waiting for them in Germany.

The little girl wants her Mom, so we walk towards their barrack. Ibrahim delivers her, and we sit down to talk at the stairs. His friends show up, one of them with his little daughter. They tell me about their life in the camp, and I promise to write about it.

Before the war

Ibrahim misses the Syria that existed before the civil war. Then no-one asked if you were a Christian or a Moslem, a Sunni or an Alawite. “Al-arab wahid ashab” his friend says – he does not speak English, but tells in simple Arabic that all Arab-speakers are one people. We should not fight against each other. Another friend of Ibrahim has worked in Nabatieh in South Lebanon. I tell them that, in fact, I am on my way to Lebanon, to celebrate Resurrection and the Orthodox Easter. The young men wish me a good pilgrimage, and ask me to say hi to the Syrians in Beirut. One and half million refugees from Syria are sheltered in Lebanon, alongside four million Lebanese citizens, as well as several million stateless Palestinians.

The conflict back home

As with the Lebanese thirty years earlier, the Syrians have experienced sudden change from cultural pluralism to sectarian war. The diversity used to be exposed by the presence of various churches, mosques and historical monuments. The civil war, by contrast, pits brother against brother, worker against worker. Tactical alliances change swiftly for militias on the ground, while the strategic map shows four coalitions: the government with allies, the rebels spearheaded by Jihadists, the so-called Islamic State in the east, and the Kurdish democratic forces in the north. Here is scarce room for idealism. In sectarian war, you must shoot your neighbour before he shoots you – or get away. The UN has registered 6,6 million internally displaced persons, while 4,8 have fled the country.

The right to seek asylum

After reading the second article in this series, some of the refugees I had met send me an email. They attach photos of their barracks, most of them lacking air condition. In each barrack, several families live under the same tin roof, under the Greek summer sun. Also an employee sends an email, reporting that the electric supply has become more reliable, but that there is a lack of workforce. But most important of all, the refugees fear the deal between Turkey and the EU, about forced return of Syrian refugees.

Amnesty International claims that the EU-Turkey deal violates international human rights law. Syria certainly is unsafe, and Turkey is moving in the same direction with an Islamist president using Jihadists as proxy against secular leftist forces in the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Syria. The Turkish military always was hostile to Amnesty. But when Turkey and the EU made their deal, Amnesty protested against both.

Ibrahim expects to be deported within few days. The girl and her mother are in contact with the girl’s father, Ibrahim’s brother in law. He has obtained permit to stay in Germany, and contacted the German embassy in Athens, asking to reunite with his family. The German embassy told him to wait five months for a reply, but the Greek temporary residence permits for his family last only one month more. The asylum bureaucracy is overloaded – and hasty deportations prevent serious processing of the asylum applications.


Amnesty International has a petition against the EU-Turkey deal (click here).






The political-economic strategy of Syriza

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This is the second of five articles in the series “Athens: The Crisis Within the Crisis” (click here)

The people of Greece have found ways to care for themselves, when the state entered a welfare crisis, as a result of the financial crisis. This article series shows some striking examples of community self help among citizens in Athens, even involving migrants. While the Greek people have helped themselves, their government has been stuck in an impossible political game. What was the grand strategy?


Solidaric citizens take responsibility

Some of the most striking community efforts are found in the hands-on efforts management of the migration crisis, where citizens and migrants combine old resources in innovative ways, covering basic needs without money, and thus, generating value. In our article series, we have documented two complimentary efforts, one directed by the Syriza government, another led by the Anarchist movement. In line with recent studies in economic anthropology, we have turned the attention to “the other side” of the crisis: how do common people, out of necessity, innovate alternative infrastructures and currencies, and how do they generate economic value from scratch? One may have hope in this grass roots political economy. This undergrowth spreads unnoticed, in the shadow of the elitist political economy, with its investors, governments, banks and treaties.

Irresponsible deals between banks and elites

While recognizing the grass roots political economy, one should also not forget the elitist political economy, because its failure has caused everyday suffering and practical problems. The middle class in Greece is striving to keep up their way of life. In this situation, some of my friends are establishing a family. The father has gained a full time job, which hardly covers their expenses, while the toddler is being looked after by his mother. She also re-schools herself to qualify for jobs with predictable payment, while the kid stays with his grandparents. As in most families, care work is done on a voluntary basis, mostly by women, also by retired or unemployed men. Informal economy covers welfare needs, and generates value – but not without costs. Common people in Greece ask the simple question of why they have to pay for the irresponsible deals between Greek elites and European banks. The reformist government was voted in power in order to keep the irresponsible parties responsible of their actions. Why did it fail?

Keeping peace with the Greek elites

Why did not the irresponsible elite in Greece pay for the economic crisis? Why did the reformist government refrain from a Robin Hood policy – stealing back what the rich had taken from the poor, in order to return it to the poor? One reason might be the need to maintain peace in a country where old people still remember civil war. When the reformist Syriza Party became the largest party, their election campaign was supported by a host of radical socialist and anarchist movements. These were known for spectacular street clashes with the special police force Delta. Most members of this police force voted for the fascist Golden Down Party, according to election research. The Fascists believe in the unity of the ethnic nation, while the Anarchists are loyal to the unity of the social class. Thus, the two movements suggest two opposing ways to overcome the destructive effects of financial capitalism. In both blocs, the activists have grandparents who risked their lives in civil strife during the World War II and after. In between these two blocs, it may have been difficult to be the Syriza Party: on the one hand, trying to be loyal to the socialist bloc, on the other hand, trying to avoid antagonizing the nationalist bloc. This may explain why the Syriza Party chose to create a coalition government with the conservative nationalist Anel Party. Perhaps this move prevented civil strife? Perhaps it also made it impossible to keep the old elite responsible of their corruption?

Keeping peace with the European banks

Why did not the irresponsible European banks pay for the economic crisis? During the negotiations about the debt crisis, the media attention was won by the Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who looked like a rock star. But the power game was won by his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble, a hard liner. He demanded that the Greek tax payers should pay for the Greek debt crisis – against the suggestions from those who have tried this recipe before, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and former World Bank leader Joseph Stiglitz. These suggest more social liberal policies. From such a viewpoint it is rather absurd that the European Central Bank has a shared currency, the Euro, without any shared monetary policy, to counter low conjunctures. Instead of keeping the European and Greek elites responsible of their irresponsible money lending policies, the Greek tax payers are forced to pay. Drinking water is a basic human right, but the Greek government has been forced to sell this public service to private corporations based in Germany. Thus, the drinking water is no longer under democratic control. The policy making is left to a social darwinist principle of the survival-of-the-strongest – completely against the visions of Adam Smith, a founder of economic liberalism, who believed that the state should ensure equal opportunities for everyone. When the rule of the financial oligarchy is called “neoliberal”, then the language is counter-factual, and diverts attention away from the actual violence of the regime. Why could not minister Varoufakis and the IMF together turn the tide? Did they under-estimate the extremism of all the Schäubles who follow in the footsteps of Reagan and Thatcher – and Pinochet? When someone say “there is no alternative” to financial capitalism, then they actually refer to the Diktat of financial capital.

Is this a coup?

When the baby sleeps, his mother tells me that the solidarity movement talks positively about Merkel, it is not her, but Schäuble, that is seen as the enemy. When I ask her where the class struggle within Greece has gone, after the new government, she is positive about keeping the nation together. The young mother talks about civic “patriotism”, like the historical Republican movement in Latin Europe. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, a reformist Republican government was elected into power in Spain, but failed dramatically. Armed reaction from the nationalist bloc, combined with passive acceptance from liberal states, led to the Spanish Civil War. Of course, Greece in 2016 is a specific place and period, different from Spain in 1936. Nevertheless, one similarity is that in contemporary Greece, the reform movement gained governing position through a coalition between socialist parties and anarchist movements, similarly to the Republicans in Spain. However, one of the differences is that in contemporary Greece, the reformist socialist party chose to form a coalition government with a conservative nationalist party, whereas in historical Spain, the entire nationalist bloc became part of an armed reaction. Thus, with Spain during the Great Depression, the neighbouring liberal governments could sit passively and watch the Spanish Civil War. But in contemporary Greece, the reformist prime minister was forced by neighbouring liberal governments to sign “the third memorandum” – which implied that the Greek reform government had to surrender to all demands from the counterpart, even giving up democratic control over drinking water. “This is a coup!” was the shout from the socialist and anarchist movements. “The only progressive action today is to bleed”, prime minister Alexis Tsipras said recently. The good news is that even though the Syriza Party has failed, it nevertheless failed much less dramatically than others.



Helge Hiram Jensen


Refugee Accommodation Centre City Plaza: the Solidarity Movement

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This is the third of five articles in the series “Athens: The Crisis Within the Crisis” (click here)

In an abandoned hotel, local citizens have created the self-managed Refugee Accommodation Centre City Plaza. Excitement was felt at all the social centres when, during one weekend, nearly all of them congregated, to appropriate one large building. Two days later we go there, walking through the worker and migrant neighbourhood to the northeast of the National Archaeological Museum.

The migrant neighbourhood

The alleyway is elegant, but has not been maintained for a decade or two. Here are shops offering “halal” and Indian restaurants with signs that none of us can read. My friend tells that this used to be a prosperous area, but then the middle class moved out, while workers and migrants moved in. We conclude that here we observe the reverse of the much-debated “gentrification” (the process when city quarters becoming more upper class and less diverse). We cross through a square with trees and flowers, where many newly arrived migrants meet, to exchange news and find contacts. Groups of people with various skin colours and ways of dress are talking silently together. Security guards are hanging at corners. Native retirees sit at benches, watching the spectacle. Children on a carpet make drawings with blonde volunteers. Below the peaceful surface, however, are personal dramas: families trying to find jobs, or to organize their way further away from war. At the middle of the Victoria Square is a sculpture, showing a centaur abducting a woman.

Reclaiming a hotel building

We turn two corners and find ourselves in front of the former City Plaza Hotel, a tall building. At the entrance we meet a group of Afghani asylum seekers, who are assisted by Nasim, a Greek political activist of Afghan origin. He greets my friend, and brings us through the entrance hall, where many local youngsters are hanging around, then up one stair to a shiny lobby. The polished decoration is intact, but the fountain is turned off. Sheets with hand written information in Arabic and Farsi are hanging on the wall. In the stairs we cross by some of the new inhabitants: families with small children, young women in fashionable jihabs, and grandpas in traditional Bedouin kirtles. At the second floor, Nasim proudly opens the door to a large catering kitchen, but the Bulgarian chef angrily chases us out – he is a professional, keeping strict hygienic routines. The hotel building has everything: reception, dining hall, cafeteria, catering kitchen with a qualified chef, and of several hundred bedrooms. The owners got bankrupt during the crisis – without paying the employees. Their trade union claims ownership of the building, the real capital of the hotel. When the squatters installed themselves and the refugees in the building, they promised to hand it over to the trade union after use. Later that evening we would hear that the trade union club of the local hotel employees had issued a formal declaration of support for the refugee accommodation. They say this is an inspiration for their own struggle to gain the salaries that they have earned.

Social integration

My friend goes to volunteer at the improvised nursery, and to take some photos. At the former hotel cafeteria, Nasim introduces me to the journalist Yannis. All three are comrades in a social movement coalition led by the Solidarity Initiative for Economic and Political Refugees. The journalist talks about integration: “We say to the neighbours: The question is not to have or not to have refugees in the neighbourhood, but how to have it. It is better to have refugees with rights, who are integrated into the neighbourhood. This is safer for everyone.” While starting to squat the building, the movement also made a newspaper, in a plain language, without activist jargon, in order to communicate with the neighbours. Yannis is enthusiastic. “The solidarity movement doesn’t want to be seen as people giving gifts, or charity. We also refuse to receive any gifts, or donations, from governments, church, NGOs or big business. Our goal is to restore human dignity for all, so that everyone can claim their basic rights.” City Plaza is a self-managed housing community, where inhabitants participate in everything from assemblies and decision-making, to logistics and practical tasks. Thus, migrants become integrated with local people, while activists become integrated with non-political people.

Between Attiki and Exarchia

The solidarity movement claims that the government creates social distance between locals and migrants, when it tries to “accommodate refugees far away from the centre”. City Plaza is part of urban life. It blends well into the worker and migrant neighbourhood. This is located in-between two other neighbourhoods, where we find two opposing political movements. Exarchia is the home of radical left-wing social centres, while in Attiki, the radical right-wing party got many votes. The anarchist movement and the fascist movement take opposite political stands to the refugee crisis. Nasim and Yannis are used to navigate in this local terrain: “We could have had 500 people in this building, but 300-400 are enough, because we need to set up a nursery, a school, and take care of security – and the first floor houses solidarity people, for security reasons.” After I had been outside the building, I tried to return, but the youngsters at the entrance did not accept me, until I found Nasim. The youngsters outside City Plaza, as the retirees at Victoria Square, were not only idling about. Local people prevent aggression by close contact and gossiping – social integration.


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Helge Hiram Jensen



Eleonas Hospitality Camp for Refugees – a joint effort under the Syriza government

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This is the second of five articles in the series “Athens: The Crisis Within the Crisis” (click here) INSERT LINK:

In the middle of an industrial area is Eleonas Hospitality Camp for Refugees. Friendly men in worn working clothes happily indicate the way, along a very dusty road, where one has to dodge rattling cars, and watch out for steel trash on the ground. Suddenly, through an opening in a wall, appears a village of simple barracks. The lazy police dog lets me through, and while the camp workers check my permission, I have a look around.

Within the walls

The area is covered with asphalt. The barracks are standardized, industrially produced, mounted on concrete bollards, with roofs made from tin plates. They look old and worn out, grass and flowers growing around the bollards. This is the old part of the camp, which was build about a year ago. Many children are playing around, and there are more women than men, most of them with headscarf. Some are queuing in front of one barrack called AΠOΘHKH (“apothiki”), where something is distributed. The people in the queue wear cheap clothes, a random mix. But there are also some more elegantly dressed “middle class refugees”. Some are coming and going through the gate, apparently registering at an office barrack. Most of the people look like Syrians, some like Afghans. In-between the other tasks, one office worker makes several phone calls to the ministry, while I also call my contact in the state administration. Eventually, one camp worker brings me for a tour.

A guided tour

The oldest part of the camp was made at the beginning of the refugee crisis. Here is one part for families, another for singles. Next to the family barracks is one barrack for the Red Cross / Red Crescent, another one for the interpreter’s association and the SOS Children Villages. Some young men are playing football in the sunshine. Besides the barracks for singles, we find the improvised office of the UNHCR, and a barrack for food distribution. The food is delivered from a large kitchen that belongs to the navy. A few people are standing in line to pick up their lunch packages. At dinnertime, there is much more activity, my guide tells me. Next to the main camp is a new one. It was made to accommodate refugees who lived in tents at Pireus Port. The army has installed the barracks, with water and wastewater system. The new camp is divided by country of origin: one part for persons from Syria, another for persons from Afghanistan, and a small part for persons from Iraq. It is easy for people to interact with someone from the same place as themselves. My guide leaves, and I head for the Syrian section.

The “Syrian quarter”

Between the barracks are narrow paths. Under the laundry, a small boy is playing. He points a plastic machine gun at me. The “Syrian quarter” of the camp is overcrowded. Only the very basic infrastructure is in place. The wastewater system is solid enough for disease control, but each toilet has to be shared by several families. I meet two young men who look after their daughters and nieces. They tell that they get food every day, but they are worried about the nutritional value of eating mostly pasta. The meat comes from donations. My guide had told me that all food donations have to be delivered in the original packages from the supermarket, for food safety reasons. The refugees show me vacuum packed chicken with mould inside. The fresh food had become uneatable before arriving to them. Local people donate clothes, shoes, and products of personal hygiene. There are plenty of clothes, and it is a logistic task to put winter clothes on storage and getting the summer clothes out. One father had brought his sick daughter to the Red Cross barrack, but they advised him to go to the Ambolokipi Hospital. This treats poor Greeks and asylum seekers, but is hard to find for a foreigner. With many technical worries, there is a need for practical and mental relief. Eight youngsters arrive with drums and other instruments, led by girl and a boy who are somewhat older. The boy wears a black t-shirt with a red star. The young people start to play with the children in the camp.

Joint effort

The camp is run by the Ministry of Immigration, under the Syriza government. It provides the most vital services, but not much more. This is achieved with very little funding, by mobilizing the kitchen from the navy, plumbers from the army, social services from the United Nations, health services from Non-Governmental Organizations, and cultural activities from volunteers. Old resources are combined in innovative ways, to provide vital services.

An old woman comes up to my guide, complaining about the lack of electrical power. “Ma fi kahraba” she says in Arabic, pointing to the cables. The worker explains in simple English that she does not know when it would be fixed. The electric power comes from the municipality. After the new part of the camp was build, the municipality ha s failed to upgrade the capacity of the electric power supply, resulting in constant power breaks. We look around: The camp is located in the middle of an industrial area. The weak power supply cannot be due to bad capacity, but must be a result of absent coordination.

As I leave the camp, it appears that a third section is being constructed. People with vehicles from the fire brigade are involved in setting up new barracks. Behind them are some men with military vehicles, busily installing new water and wastewater tubes.

Photo: From the “Syrian quarter” within Eleonas refugee camp (by Helge Hiram Jensen)

Helge Hiram
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